You Can’t Be Who You Can’t See: Mentorship As a Function of Experience


How many times have we heard the phrase, “there’s no replacement for experience”? Like most cliches, however, the phrase has become tired because it rings so true.

Experience is often at the heart of being a mentor in a professional setting, and for good reason. 

There’s no replacement — no college course, no TED Talk, no quick-hit blog post — for the real-life, practical lessons learned from the interactions, conversations, and tasks completed over time. This experience, or social capital, is a powerful currency for mentors, especially the mentorship relationships with underrepresented professionals. 

The Top Attributes of Effective Mentors

The best mentors will be enthusiastic, empathetic leaders with professional experiences that other community members hope to emulate. Beyond that, they’ll have shared similar life experiences, providing more opportunities for a deeper connection — and inspiration for Black and Latinx students who may feel “freezed” out by typical workforce makeups.

The ultimate goal is to grow the young professional into a future mentor who can pass on wisdom and continue to provide opportunities to young up-and-comers. Focusing on experience, instead of hierarchy, will yield the most fruitful results for all parties involved.

According to the Harvard Business Review, the best type of mentor relationships are more like the relationship between a parent and adult child than between a boss and employee. They’re characterized by mutual respect, trust, shared values, and good communication, and they find their apotheosis in the mentee’s transition to mentor.

Guiding the Mentor Relationship 

Every mentorship starts, of course, with relevant work experience. A mentor doesn’t have to hold the exact role or position that their mentee is targeting, but it is often helpful to learn from someone within the same field. This way, the relationship can be focused and personalized.

But the evaluation of experience doesn’t end with a quick glance at a CV. Experience goes beyond the workforce and into personal background. Where did the mentor grow up? Was it a similar environment to their mentee’s current situation? Did the mentor go through a similar struggle or success that can hit home with the mentee?

Empathy — that special sauce gained only through shared experience — can be a powerful force, particularly for young Black professionals. Connecting a Black student with someone who has succeeded in a field or role that didn’t seem attainable because of social norms or pressures can be eye-opening. 

A positive mentor also empowers their mentee to control the relationship. After the relationship is forged, a mentor should put the ball in their mentee’s court; let them control the conversation topics, send the calendar invites and have input on any action items. A mentor still needs to provide guidance and suggestions, but mentees will get the most out of a situation that they can help dictate and tailor to themselves.

This last thought sheds light on a new way to examine mentor-mentee relationships. Sure, the structure of the relationship is generally similar — a more experienced mentor takes a less seasoned mentee under his or her wing. But there is a more nuanced way to explore the typical mentor-mentee hierarchy.

Mentorship as a Function of Experience 

The best partnerships are contextual relationships based on the pairing’s relative exposure. Mentors should be selected as a function of experience, not necessarily because of their top perch on the company organizational chart. 

The right fit means the mentor can draw on their own, similar experiences to help enrich their mentee. There are countless examples of these lessons reciprocated from mentee to mentor, as well. For example, as explained in The Atlantic, the economists Darrick Hamilton and William “Sandy” Darity Jr. started their relationship as student and advisor, respectively, more than twenty years ago, but now see themselves as equals, despite their initial hierarchical differences. 

According to the article, “While mentorship is often reduced to binary roles, such as teacher-student or boss-employee, Hamilton’s dynamic with Darity doesn’t quite fit that mold.” It even goes on to say that the older Darity schooled Hamilton on the benefits of social media! This is a prime example of how exposure and experience can be the guiding light within mentorship — not just hierarchy. 

Mentor Spaces: Connecting Underrepresented Talent With People In the Know 

At Mentor Spaces, our motto of “lift as you climb” is a perfect way to think of the mutual benefits of a solid mentorship relationship.

You can’t be who you can’t see. That’s why we are connecting Black and Latinx students with established professionals who have shared similar experiences. We not only help connect mentees with mentors, but we can also help your business scale its diversity & inclusion efforts, improve retention, and enhance corporate culture.

The world needs more mentors that can positively impact the lives of underrepresented young professionals, those professionals who will become tomorrow’s leaders and mentors. 
If you want to share your lived experience and maximize your impact, apply to mentor with Mentor Spaces today.